An interview with Rodrigo Prieto, The Irishman DoP

Rodrigo Prieto


Rodrigo Prieto is one of the world’s foremost cinematographers. An expert technician with the chameleonic ability to adapt his style to the specific needs of the story being told, Prieto’s résumé includes films by luminaries such as Alejandro González Iñárritu, Spike Lee, Ang Lee, Pedro Almodóvar, Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese – director of The Irishman, currently streaming on Netflix.

In this exclusive interview with Screen Africa, Prieto tells us about his approach to filming The Irishman, collaborating with Martin Scorsese and where he finds his inspiration from project to project…

The Irishman stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, and sees Scorsese return to the crime genre that he has played such a large role in defining for modern cinema audiences. Based on the 2004 book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the film – which runs for 209 minutes – follows the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro) as he recounts his days working as a hitman for Pennsylvanian crime lord Russell Bufalino (Pesci) before becoming the bodyguard of notorious mobster Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Emotionally complex and epic in its scope, The Irishman marks Prieto’s third collaboration with Scorsese, after The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016).

Speaking about their working relationship, Prieto says: “I’ve always admired Scorsese’s use of the camera and his cinematic language –and so I find it very natural to execute the shots he wants to do, because I really like his take on how to tell a story visually. I also think that I listen very carefully to what he’s saying, and not only when he’s talking specifically about shots or ideas, but just in general – I know that when he’s in a project there are things he might say, even in passing, that have meaning and significance to the look he is trying to create. At least, I find that I can translate these things, and use them as inspiration for my ideas about how to manipulate the lighting and the camera.”

With the film “in gestation for many years”, Prieto explains that he “read the book before I’d read the script, and that helped me get into that world. Sometimes when a movie is based on a novel, I actually prefer not to read the novel – because you can get caught up with scenes and incidents that don’t happen in the script – but in this case, I really wanted to get a sense of the history behind the story, and it was fascinating.”

One of Prieto’s distinctive techniques is his willingness to combine film and digital to achieve the exact texture of image the story requires. “On this particular project I knew film negative would be required. This is because at one point Scorsese mentioned that he had a sense of memory for the movie – and of home movies. Then again, he mentioned that he did not want a grainy, hand-held Super 8 or 16mm feeling, either – so I thought I would use references to the emulsions of still photography of the different eras,” Prieto says.

Shot on both an Arricam LT and ST with Cooke Panchro lenses, Prieto says: “I’m proud of the way I decided to differentiate the different decades in the film. For the 50s I used Kodachrome and for the 60s I used Ektachrome – and I think these photographic emulsions, on a subliminal level, remind us of our childhoods, those colours connect us instantly to the feeling of home movies. From the 1970s on, though, I did an emulation of a technique called ENR – which is a process where on the print of a film, you skip the bleach pass and keep the silver on the film, which creates added contrast and desaturates the colours. So, towards the end of Frank Sheeran’s life, you will notice the colour has drained from his life because of what he’s been through. And that’s the big movement of the film – it starts full of Kodachrome colour and then by the end, the colour has drained from the images. This plays into the idea of memory, but is also a way to show that the meaning Frank thought his life had, which I represent with colour, maybe was not exactly what he thought.”

Shot over 106 days, the other key challenge for Prieto on The Irishman involved the cutting-edge de-aging technology on display throughout the film. Prieto says, “We had to use digital cameras for the de-aging visual effects. So, even though I knew that I wanted the movie to a have a sense of being photographed on film negative, it was necessary for the scenes that were ‘youthified’, that we had to use three cameras for each angle. So for the main camera, I used a Red Helium, but on each side of it I used two ARRI Minis – which were just capturing information from the faces so that the computer could then apply all that information from the performances to the CGI-created younger face.

“That was a big complication,” he continues. “I had to create rigs that were robust enough to hold these three cameras, but still lightweight enough to work on Technocranes or remote heads or fluids heads or whatever it may be – we had to make sure we didn’t limit Scorsese at all in terms of the way he wanted to move the camera.”

Another factor that added to the complexity of the camera crew’s operations, as Prieto explains, is Scorsese’s penchant for covering dialogue scenes from more than one angle simultaneously. “The cameras are facing opposing directions, which makes lighting complicated – and sometimes, he will also want to cover the scene in a two-shot at the same time. So when you consider that each rig actually consists of three cameras that means we could have six or nine cameras in operation at the same time – with six or nine focus pullers all working at once.”

Elaborating on his choice of style for the film, Prieto explains that “Scorsese wanted the film to have the perspective of Frank Sheeran – who was a quiet, methodical man. That meant the camera couldn’t behave in a flashy way; the camera language needs to be simple when we’re with him: frontal, sideways or simple panning. There’s no spectacle to the way he kills, and so there’s no spectacle in the approach of the camera work.”

With its novelistic length and assortment of settings and sub-characters, Prieto describes the key challenge of this particular project as follows: “To keep the images interesting, but not in an obvious way. Vary the lighting conditions and the colour from scene to scene and use the different settings as an opportunity to convey a variety of different feelings. What’s spectacular in the movie is the performances – and I had to trust that myself and not try too hard with the camera.”

This last point is characteristic of Prieto, whose style, while recognisably his own, is also distinctive in its variety and has been put to exquisite use on an impressive variety of projects. From the fireworks scene of Brokeback Mountain, to his portrayal of Tokyo in Babel and the Quaaludes-induced chaos of Wolf of Wall Street, Prieto has been responsible for some of the most memorable moments in cinema of the last 20 years.

“I have been fortunate to work with directors who are very passionate,” he reflects. “And I have always gravitated towards that – towards treating what we do as something much more than a job. I use cinematography as a tool for my own expression; lighting is an abstract way of expressing emotions. It’s like music – you can’t explain it in words, it’s something instinctual. That’s how I approach my cinematography – using my own life experience. Things I have seen with my own eyes and have made me feel a certain way. Even if I do try give every film its own specific visual characteristics – things that emanate from the story and from the director’s point of view –my eye is inevitably in there, the way I have responded to my own experiences in my life.”